MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A woman who spent nearly 60 years of her life in an iron lung after being diagnosed with polio as a child died Wednesday after a power failure shut down the machine that kept her breathing, her family said.
Dianne Odell, 61, had been confined to the 7-foot-long machine since she was stricken by polio at 3 years old.
Family members were unable to get an emergency generator working for the iron lung after a power failure knocked out electricity to the Odell family's residence near Jackson, about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, brother-in-law Will Beyer said.
"We did everything we could do but we couldn't keep her breathing," said Beyer, who was called to the home shortly after the power failed. "Dianne had gotten a lot weaker over the past several months and she just didn't have the strength to keep going."
Capt. Jerry Elston of the Madison County Sheriff's Department said emergency crews were called to the scene, but could do little to help.
Odell was afflicted with "bulbo-spinal" polio three years before a polio vaccine was discovered and largely stopped the spread of the crippling childhood disease.
She spent her life in the iron lung, cared for by her parents and other family members. Though confined inside the 750-pound apparatus, Odell managed to get a high school diploma, take college courses and write a children's book.
The iron lung that she used was a cylindrical chamber with a seal at the neck. She lay on her back in the device with only her head exposed, and made eye contact with visitors using an angled mirror above her head. The lung worked by producing positive and negative pressure on the lungs that caused them to expand and contract so that she could breathe.
Iron lungs were first used to sustain life in 1928, and were largely replaced by positive-pressure airway ventilators in the late 1950s. A spinal deformity from the polio made it impossible for Odell to wear a more modern, portable breathing apparatus, so she continued to use the older machine.
It is not known how many polio survivors still use iron lungs, but Odell was believed to have used it for longer than most.
Odell was determined to live a full life — she earned a diploma from Jackson High School as a home-bound student and an honorary degree from Freed-Hardeman College. A voice-activated computer allowed her to write a children's book, "Less Light," about Blinky, a tiny star who dreams of becoming a wishing star.
In a 2001 interview with The Associated Press, she said she wanted to show children, especially those with physical disabilities, that they should never give up.
"It's amazing what you can accomplish if you see someone do the same thing," she said.